Sistine ceiling

Oct 30, 2012

In a few hours Pope Benedict will celebrate Vespers in the Sistine Chapel for the vigil of the feast of All Saints. The pope has chosen the Sistine Chapel to begin the 2012 feast of All Saints since this year, on this day, we mark the 500th anniversary of the completion of Michaelangelo’s ceiling.

History records thoroughly the difficult relationship between the Pope (Julius II) who commissioned the work, and Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (6 March 1475 – 18 February 1564) chosen by the pope to complete the task.   

The pope’s compulsions and Michaelangelo’s “artistic” passions did not make for an easy working environment.  

Michaelangelo did not consider himself to be a painter.  He was a sculptor. But the pope was the boss and when the pope said “paint” Michaelangelo felt as though he was left with no option but to obey.

And so by this act of (albeit grumbling) obedience, we are left with one of the greatest artistic treasures of all time.

In 1961 the Californian author Irving Stone wrote an autobiographical novel on the life and work of Michaelangelo. This work, “The Agony and the Ecstasy” was later made into a movie of the same name

It is timely to quote the piece from Stone’s novel that relates to todays commemoration:

During all these months the pope kept insisting that Michaelangelo complete his ceiling quickly, quickly! Then one day Julius climbed the ladder unannounced.  

“When will it be finished?”

“When I have have satisfied myself.” 

“Satisfied yourself in what? You have already taken four full years.” 

“In the matter of art, Holy Father.” 

“It is my pleasure that you finish it in a matter of days.” 

“It will be done, Holy Father, when it will be done.” 

“Do you want to be thrown down from this scaffolding?” 

Michaelangelo gazed at the marble floor below. 

“On All Saints’ Day I shall celebrate mass here,” declared the Pope. “It will be two years since I blessed the first half.” 

Michaelangelo had wanted to touch up some of the draperies and skies a secco, in gold and ultramarines, as his Florentine predecessors had done below him. But there would be no time now. He had Michi and Mottino take down the scaffold. The next day Julius stopped by. 

“Don’t some of the decorations need to be brightened with gold?” he demanded. 

Useless to explain that he had wanted to do this, Now was he going to re-erect the scaffold and go back up into the vault. 

“Holy Father, in those times men did not bedeck themselves with gold.” 

“It will look poor!” 

Michaelangelo planted his feet stubbornly beneath him, his teeth locked, his chin stiffened. Julius gripped his fist over his walking stick. The two men stood before the altar, beneath the heavens and glared at each other. 

“Those whom I have painted were poor,” said Michaelangelo, breaking the silence.  “They were holy men.”

On All Saints Day official Rome dressed itself in its finest robes for the Pope’s dedication of the Sistine Chapel. Michaengelo rose early, went to the baths, shaved off his beard, donned his blue hose, blue wool shirt. 
But he did not go to the Sistine.  Instead he walked out under the portico of his house, pulled back the tarpaulin, stood ruminatively before the marble columns he had waited these seven long years to carve. He walked to his work desk, picked up a pen, wrote: 
The best of artists hath no thought to show
Which the rough stone in its superfluous shell
Doth not include; to break the marble spell
Is all the hand that serves the brain can do. 
Standing on the threshold of his hard-earned freedom, disregarding his costly hose, the fine wool shirt, he took up his hammer and chisel. Fatigue, memory, bitterness and pain fell away. Sunlight streaming in the window caught the fist shafts of marble dust that floated upward.

Irving Stone
pp 547 – 549
This youtube clip is 50 minutes long, but gives a good overview of the 1980’s restoration of the ceiling.
a couple of short virtual tours


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